Sunday, July 16, 2006

Vlad the impaler

I don't approve of everything Vladimir Putin does and some of the stuff in his latest big speech to the Russian parliament, but I gotta have a bit of love for a guy with the style and ear for classical grandiosity and outlandish rhetoric that Putin has. Its great to look at from a distance and as your friend from that distance; though not so much up close.

Putin spoke to Russia's national legislature on the great event that was the death of Shamil Basayev, the top Chechen jihadist, who is probably now conversing with Zarqawi, Atta, Uday and Qusay, Sheik Yassin on the finer points of where Muhammad screwed up the meaning of "houris" and why the hell is it so hot in here. (Hopefully their Koran study group will soon be expanded to include Osama and/or Saddam.)

But his speech (I have put the full text here) is just ... remarkable. No current or recent American or Western politician speaks like this -- we'd consider him megalomaniacal or a movie dictator. He says he "will lead Russia to glory beyond your imagination." That St. Paul to the Corinthians, not the leader of a secular government talking. There's something almost ... Shakespearean (or more likely Tolstoyan) about speaking of "Russian civilization [having] carried on the legacy of the Roman and Byzantine empires as the crowning achievement of humanity," how Russia "will preserve the Roman flame for the next thousand years," and how "our long war is finally over and a thousand years of peace begins today." There's some bad recent precedent for European regimes making claims on the next 1,000 years.

And surely the warnings about Al Qaeda having been "aided by plutocratic industrialists and even some within our own government," his vow that "the political machinery of Russia will continue to be reorganized into a better guided and directed democracy" and his claims of how federalizing regional governments is necessary to stop the rise of local warlords -- they all probably don't speak well for the future of civil rights and freedom in Russia.

But my favorite line has got to be this: "Our loyal soldiers have contained the insurrection in the North Caucasus and will continue to suppress uprisings throughout the Federation until the language of the Chechen separatists is spoken only in hell!" None of this "winning hearts and minds" crap. Nor does he mince words in blaming those in the Middle East whom Russia thought were its friends. And I wonder what the Russian Civil Liberties Union thinks of such blatant religious imagery (compounded later by "We have been tested before God, but we have come through the crucible and emerged stronger in His eyes for it").

Really, all Vlad needs is his own Leni Riefenstahl, or, for a more Russian precedent, perhaps a Sergei Eisenstein, to film him. He's already got the lines and the "music" down pat. In fact ... Turner Classic Movies recently showed Eisenstein's two IVAN THE TERRIBLE movies. And the thing that strikes the contemporary viewer (I was seeing No. 2 for the first time) was how *far* and *thoroughly* the film takes operatic stylization. It's the closest I've ever seen a non-Japanese thing get to Kabuki theater (see the picture DVD cover for a sense of how anti-realistic a simple closuep is). There's hardly a thing realistic in the films' 200 minutes -- every gesture is outsized and conspiculously "performed," the faces stick out and cast enormous shadows on the walls, the dialog is incantatory and ritualized, the acting self-conscious and Big, the costumes like parodies of royal grandeur. I probably couldn't bear an identical film in English. But since I don't understand Russian anyway, I could enjoy the films as a stylized, outsized opera (understanding the words makes the experience too realistic to bear up under the weight of all this artifice).

What all this critical heavy breathing has to do with Putin is that his rhetoric and style -- its grandiose Ciceronic stylization -- seem to be coming from the same tradition as Eisenstein's films. And the main thrust of the IVAN films' plots had to do with Ivan uniting Russia as an enlightened despot. Some of the things he deals with are an Asiatic rebellion (Tartars, not Chechens, but nevertheless), plots by the boyars (nobility; or in the contmporary case, oligarchs) undermining Russian unity from within, an attempted assassination (Putin alludes to such plots against him in his speech too), and how Ivan crushes the boyars with a private spy network (this part got Eisenstein in trouble with Josef Stalin). Virtually everything Ivan struggles against, Putin alludes to, above and here:

By bringing all of Russia together under one law, one language, and the continued guidance of one individual, the corruption that so plagued our people during the era of Yeltsin will never again take root. Federalizing regional governments will eliminate mindless bureaucracy and petty local tyrants that allowed separatism to go unchecked.

It's not just IVAN THE TERRIBLE. This paragraph ...

[O]ur most cherished beliefs must remain safeguarded. We will defend our ideals by force of arms. We will give no ground to our enemies and will stand together against attacks from within or without. Let the enemies of Russia take heed: those who challenge our resolve will be eradicated from the annals of history.

... is virtually the closing speech that the victorious prince gives at the end of Eisenstein's ALEXANDER NEVSKY. Given the vagaries of translation and movie subtitling, it's close enough that it may even be the speech, or quote from it.

9 comments:

Joe M said...

Vote for Putin: He will make all your dreams come true.

Joe M said...

Yep: you see Eisenstein, I see Napoleon Dynamite. I'm so uncultured.

Dan said...

My first reaction upon reading this was, "Oh come on. I mean, nobody talks like that, let alone incorporates it into speeches before their national legislature."

TM Lutas said...

You are wrong. Believe it or not, I see a Putin reply to a George W Bush love note. Remember his 300 year plan to pull Russia into union with the West? If the "long war" that Putin has just declared over is not the long war of the Chechen separatists but the long war of 600 years of upholding the flame of Rome alone, Putin just said yes.

And he's absolutely right that such a dream is far beyond the imagination of the political class fo Russia today.

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I have read through one history
Each of you has your personal story; it is your history. Keeping a diary or writing your feelings in a special notebook is a wonderful way to learn how to think and write about who you are -- to develop your own identity and voice.

People of all ages are able to do this. Your own history is special because of your circumstances: your cultural, racial, religious or ethnic background. Your story is also part of human history, a part of the story of the dignity and worth of all human beings. By putting opinions and thoughts into words, you, too, can give voice to your inner self and strivings.

A long entry by Anne Frank on April 5, 1944, written after more than a year and a half of hiding from the Nazis, describes the range of emotions 14-year-old Anne is experiencing:

". . . but the moment I was alone I knew I was going to cry my eyes out. I slid to the floor in my nightgown and began by saying my prayers, very fervently. Then I drew my knees to my chest, lay my head on my arms and cried, all huddled up on the bare floor. A loud sob brought me back down to earth, and I choked back my tears, since I didn't want anyone next door to hear me . . .

"And now it's really over. I finally realized that I must do my school work to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want! I know I can write. A few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of my diary is vivid and alive, but . . . it remains to be seen whether I really have talent . . .

"When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I hope so very much, because writing allows me to record everything, all my thoughts, ideals and fantasies.

"I haven't worked on Cady's Life for ages. In my mind I've worked out exactly what happens next, but the story doesn't seem to be coming along very well. I might never finish it, and it'll wind up in the wastepaper basket or the stove. That's a horrible thought, but then I say to myself, "At the age of 14 and with so little experience, you can't write about philosophy.' So onward and upward, with renewed spirits. It'll all work out, because I'm determined to write! Yours, Anne M. Frank

For those of you interested in reading some of Anne Frank's first stories and essays, including a version of Cady's Life, see Tales From the Secret Annex (Doubleday, 1996). Next: Reviewing and revising your writing

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